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26. Chapter Twenty-Six

Catherine Moretti never signed up for this; she'd only been born into this role.

Coming back to New Jersey felt like coming back home to simpler times. The memories of being a child had somehow broken past the hazy film that had established itself in the forefront of her mind. Leaving New York and coming back here had brought things into prospective of how wrong everything had gone. Looking back on everything, she wondered why she had to be cheated from her innocence, from her own life.

A few days ago, Cat had roamed the streets of her old neighborhood, recollecting the time she had been the most happiest. When she'd stopped in front of Afton Conti's house, she remembered playing soccer with him when she was younger. Afton would play his heart out and would instantly close up when he would lose against her. They wouldn't play for weeks after that, Afton's pride always getting the best of him. Tony hadn't cared. He only played soccer so he could be a buffer between his best friend and the girl that wouldn't leave them alone.

It was amusing how they had interacted back then. She had the biggest crush on Afton and Tony had been territorial over his best friend. Cat didn't know if she ever got along with Tony, they had only pretended in order to stay close to Afton.

When she had seen Afton for the first time in four years at the Romano New Year's Eve party, she had been pleasantly surprised that he hadn't changed much. He was still an adorable-looking blond boy who was sometimes naïve to the things around him. Granted, he was more handsome now, and a bit more grounded, but there was life inside him that Cat had always been drawn toward.

For being surrounded by so many corrupted people, Afton had turned out so clean, so pure. If anyone bothered to stop and look, they would notice his gentle soul. Clearly, Cat wasn't the only one who'd taken notice.

She'd been dumbfounded when she found out Luciano Romano had sunk his claws into Afton. Of all the corrupted people to close in on Afton, it was the son of the most vicious bastard out there. She wondered if Afton even knew about the Romano Family and their wrongdoings.

Initially, she went out on a date with Tony just to learn more about Afton and Luciano. After calmly explaining that Afton wasn't as dense as he looked, and that he could take care of himself, Tony had suggested they stop talking about Afton and focus on their evening together. To say Catherine was surprised was an understatement. She hadn't liked Tony that way, she never had. Afton was the only one who'd taken up precedence in her mind when she'd moved away. And yet, she found Tony just as engaging as Afton, just as carefree, though a bit immature at times.

A relationship with Tony was something Catherine could possibly explore, but she didn't dare think on it just yet. Not when her father still had control over her, not when she was being pulled by so many people and expected to do so many things.

Pushing her thoughts away, Catherine walked back to the hotel room she shared with Afton. Soon, she would be free from her father's clutches. She just didn't know if she was making the right decision.

"Is he in there?"

She whirled around, spotting at the figure approaching her. With so many expensive fitting suits, one would find it almost unbelievable to spot Luciano Romano in a pair of jeans and a faded blue sweatshirt. He had on a worse-for-wear leather jacket and a baseball cap that shaded the majority of his face. If the clothes hadn't fit so well, Catherine might have thought that Luciano had raided Afton's closet.

"Yes," she responded tightly. She clutched the bucket of ice when he looked at it pointedly. "There is something you should know first."

The day her father sat her down and told her that he was a Don was the day she began fearing him. She was used to intimidating men. However, Luciano was of a different caliber. He had an aura about him that Catherine found hard to swallow. It was why she found it hard to believe that Afton could be happy with this man.

Lucian stopped in front of Room 23, his expression turning cold and cruel. "Something you should have told me over the phone?"

Cat pressed her lips together at his tone. She'd been surprised when he had called her a week ago, asking her for a favor. According to Luciano, Gabriele Romano had run Afton away and he was currently living on the streets. Newark was the largest populated city in New Jersey and it wasn't exactly the prime spot for someone like Afton to roam the streets. She'd agreed to search for him, and she also agreed to keep it from her father.

Nevertheless, that didn't mean she hadn't told Tony, who, in turn informed the Contis, who in turn told her father. It was the whole reason behind her current predicament. Her father had always been loyal to Benny Conti.

"I thought it would be best if I told you in person," she replied shortly. When he remained silent, Cat took a deep breath. "When I found him… he was in the bad part of the city. Especially at night, someone like Afton probably—"

"What happened?" Luciano cut her off sharply.

"He was robbed." She flashed him a look and hesitated with what she saw. Underneath the expected anger and cruelness, Cat saw naked concern. Never before had she thought Luciano Romano was capable of expressing an emotion with such intensity. "Thank God he was only robbed, but he was in bad shape. Someone hit him over the head with something heavy and stole his jacket and boots. I found him trying to walk barefoot back toward the inner city. He was delirious with a fever."

Luciano reached forward and grabbed the bucket of ice from her. "You did well. Give me some time alone with him." As he turned to enter the room, he paused and looked at her from the corner of his eye. "Thank you."

Catherine stared at the closed door. She remembered Luciano offering to give her something in return if she agreed to look for Afton. She had declined quickly, never having the intention of needing something material in order to find and help out her friend.

A bit ironic, really. She had accepted something from her father that would betray that same friend.

.M.R.

When I struggled for consciousness, I was aware of a body laying on the mattress behind me and embracing me from behind. I smiled faintly, not needing to turn around to identify my captor. I was tempted to turn anyway and exclaim how he could be here. Or maybe this was just a sign of my fever getting worse and I was hallucinating. Although my memories were hazy, I remembered the freezing cold and I remembered Cat, of all people, who had discovered me on the streets.

I'd been hesitant to comply with her, but after she told me Lucian had asked for her help, I had gratefully entered her car. Quite frankly, I didn't have much of an option anyway. My toes had been freezing and my head had been pounding like crazy. I had hoped to get to a store to purchase more winter gear, as I still had the money in my boxers from before. I hadn't gotten very far, it had been extremely agonizing on my feet to walk on the snow-covered ground.

I don't remember much of what happened after that. We'd gone to a hotel and I remembered a warm bath. Other than that, nothing.

I stared at the far wall and relished in Lucian's presence. Bringing up my hands, I wrapped them around Lucian's fingers, which were folded over my stomach. They were ice cold, a startling difference to my fevered body temperature. "Should you be here?" I asked him quietly. I needed to know if everything was back to normal, if we could go back to living our lives and arguing over the little things.

His face was buried in my hair, muffling his words, but not enough to make him incomprehensible. "I needed to be here."

Disappointment almost suffocated me. Nothing was back to normal as I had hoped. It was only worse with Lucian putting his neck out there by coming to see me.

I gave in to temptation and turned around. Lucian grabbed my hip and rolled me flush against his body. Seeing his face was enough to bring me to tears. Fuck, I was such a wuss, really. Grabbing his jacket, I buried my face in the crook of his neck and inhaled, calming myself and steadying my emotions.

"It's going to work out," Lucian reassured softly. He rubbed my back with one hand and cradled my head with the other. "I promise you'll have the life you deserve."

"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I feel like all of this is my fault."

"Don't say that, Afton," he reprimanded. "It was my father's fault. If either you or I should be at blame, it should be me. I was too absorbed in my work to realize the implications of leaving you alone there. I underestimated how much he loved his business over the well-being of his family. What he did to you was completely unacceptable."

He didn't even know the half of it. I remained silent on the subject, content in his arms. His scent engulfed me and his limbs enveloped my body, an action that may have seemed to bring comfort, but I needed to be even closer. "I lost the money and the wine. I'm so sorry!" Maybe it was my fever that made me a bit more emotional than normal, whatever it was, I tried to pull myself together.

Lucian held me closer, bringing up a leg and hooking it over my hip. "That doesn't concern me, you should know that. I'm just glad you were found in time." His fingers found the sore spot at the back of my head and he made a noise of discontentment. "The wine was just a prototype, anyway," he breathed in my ear, soothing me with his husky, deep baritone voice. "I wanted to ask you to create the background on the label. You're good with that stuff. Maybe a watercolor or charcoal. You could create wonders with that imagination of yours."

It was the way he was stroking my back and the rambling about the wine label that clued me in to my body's trembling. He was trying to take my mind off everything by talking about trivial things. They were things I would have loved to listen to, but I had other, more pressing things on my mind.

"Lucian," I interjected. Slowly, I moved back in order to look at him in the face. I needed to see his eyes, his answer. "Tell me the truth." I watched as his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes darken with uncertainty. "I need to know your complete and straightforward decision on this. Are you one-hundred percent ready to leave everything behind and live with me? Because if you aren't, we can find ways to separate now—"

"Fuck you!"

The response startled me enough to rear away from him. He grabbed my shoulders roughly and kept me in place.

"Is that what you want?" he asked, immediately defensive. His defensiveness was always a sign of his insecurity, his vulnerability. "The very idea of separating didn't even cross my mind, Afton."

"That isn't an answer," I responded stiffly, scrutinizing his face closely. "I'm asking you this, Luciano." Using his full name immediately got his rigid attention. He knew I was never inclined to call him Luciano like all the others. Using it now was impersonal and unyielding, a sign I wasn't about to fall for his trick of turning things around on me. "I need to know if you're serious about leaving the Mafia behind… forever."

Dark, bottomless eyes stared at me while his fingers hooked almost painfully on my shoulders. "I've always been serious about leaving it behind. All those times I've said I'd leave it behind for you… I was serious." Nothing on his face said otherwise. He was as open as I'd ever seen him. "I understand that it's my fault for making you doubt it. It took this… this fucked up situation to make me see that you and I would have been better off leaving earlier. But I was…"

Frowning, I touched his face, unnerved at the guilt and the self-hate on his face. "I'm not going to judge you, Lucian."

He closed up, but he trusted me enough to respond. "I was scared," he admitted throatily. "The Mafia is all I've known. Right now, I have power, money, and influence. I can give you a life you deserve. I can give you everything. I like being able to take care of you. But if we leave, I can't give you that security. My accounts are frozen, we'd be struggling, and we'd have nothing. I'd feel like a failure for giving you that sort of life. You deserve so much more."

I smiled grimly. "I think you don't know me as well as you'd like to think." Reaching for his hand, I interlocked our fingers. "I was never impressed with my family's financial superiority or my parents' influential jobs as lawyers. All I really wanted growing up was a family. We may not have much starting out, but we'd have each other and the endless opportunities of doing things we want to do without our parents telling us we're wrong."

Pausing, I ventured hesitantly. I didn't want to insult Lucian, and I also didn't want to sound too clichéd. "You might not have said it, but you must also be afraid of what you'd do with a life without the Mafia. Gabriele might not agree with me, but you have an unlimited amount of potential for more than the Mafia, Lucian. You have charisma and you're smart… you have a world with so many opportunities waiting for you."

Lucian's lashes fluttered as he looked down and away, hiding how the words truly affected him. When he recovered his stability, he brought up our clasped hands and nuzzled his face against our fingers. "I don't deserve you." He gazed at me from over our hands and smirked. "Many would think we're crazy for doing this. We might not know everything about one another, but I know more than enough to make the right decision of leaving with you. That is, if you're ready to leave it behind as well; Tony, Emily, and your family… At least for a little while…"

"You're hiding something from me," I called him out on it, noticing the tightening wrinkles in the corner of his eyes. "What has my family done? Tony told me my mother confronted Gabriele, but that's all I know."

He shook his head and pressed his lips against mine. It over before I could really enjoy it.

"Your hair," he complained. Running a possessive hand through the dark locks, he pulled at it affectionately. "Is it permanent?"

I touched it, wary of the bump on my head. "Of course it is. What else would my mom use on her grey hairs?" I smirked coyly at him. "It will be as good as new in a few months and a few haircuts." I curled a hand around the collar of his sweatshirt and pulled him in for a hard kiss.

He made an appreciative sound in his throat and deepened the kiss. His hand released my fingers and found my back, curling me even closer to his chest. I knew he was about to push me on my back, but I quickly grabbed his manhood through his jeans, shocking the shit out of him. I squeezed it gleefully and pressed my weight into him, my smaller body able to roll him onto his back. He broke the kiss and moaned my name, startled at my forwardness.

I leaned on his chest and grinned down at him, my hand still palming his hardening member. "What are you hiding from me?" I asked devilishly. If this was the way he wanted me to extract information, so be it. "Remember what we talked about? Being honest with one another?"

Lucian's pleasant surprise darkened quickly and he swiftly removed my hand from his limp member. "Not like this, Afton."

"Since when did you ever decline sex?" I asked him, my pulse beginning to race at the possible explanations to his solemnity.

"I didn't know we were going to have sex," Lucian replied, light amusement in his tone. "I thought I scarred you away from sex back in Florida."

"You'll be surprised at how many times I thought about our trip to Florida during the past week…" I trailed off and looked fondly down at him. "I mean, living on the streets for a week gave me a different perspective of things. I know it was only seven days, and definitely not impressive by any means, but I really did think about you a lot. While I was angry with you for using sex to cover up my father's 'punishment', I still enjoyed it. I realized it might have sounded harsh when I said I hated it, but if something happened to me, I didn't want you to think I hated you or—"

"Afton," Lucian interrupted softly. He cupped my face in his hands and kissed my forehead. "You're rambling. Nothing is going to happen to you. I promise you that."

"Promise me that nothing will happen to you." I traced the stubble around his jaw and cheeks, overwhelmed with his presence. Thinking about him endlessly these past few days made this seem like a dream. I didn't want this to be a product of my imagination.

"I promise you," Lucian whispered. He held my head against his chest, keeping his heavy palm flat against my cheek. "My father wants you back," he admitted. "He wants you back for good. The only reason I'm not bringing you back with me today is because the mood around the manor is… unstable. I want to wait a few days. When we're back together at the manor, we can come up with a way to leave New Jersey. The most important thing is getting my father off our trail and giving us a life without constant fear."

I wondered how he was able to slip away unnoticed and I wondered why it was unstable around his manor. But most of all, I wanted to know why Gabriele suddenly wanted me back. "Why?" I asked him. "What made him change his mind?"

Relief washed through me when I realized Lucian still intended to stick to our plan. Even if his father had changed his mind about me, Lucian was willing to run away with me. It made me feel protected, secure. Lucian and I were really leaving… leaving behind Tony, Emily, and my family. It was a sacrifice on my half, just as it was a sacrifice on Lucian's behalf to leave his family behind and the Mafia.

Lucian inhaled heavily, bringing me back to reality. Something was really weighing him down, I realized. I found it hard to believe that something could get much worse than it already was. At least I didn't have Gabriele on my back anymore. At least he wouldn't be hunting me down for the kill or threaten my parents.

"You obviously remember Norah Conti."

"Obviously," I replied, my voice tight. No matter how many times my family or Lucian would mention it, I still found it hard to believe that Norah had any hand in the Mafia. She knew her husband was a Don, but surely she had been like Contessa. She was a family woman, too kind to—

"She was involved a lot more in the business than I… than everyone thought."

Frustrated, I pushed off from him. Lucian followed me up, sitting next to me on the bed.

"Hear me out," he persuaded, spotting the tightness around my face. "A few weeks ago, a couple of our investors in New York had jumped off the bandwagon, so to speak. While Gabriele didn't want to admit it, I knew there was someone moving in to take over. At first, I thought it was a small Family that thought they could uproot the Romano Family with new money. I was wrong, it was a very old, established Family that made its move on us."

I raked a hand through my hair and peered at Lucian from over my hand. I withheld the impatient remark that was at the tip of my tongue. Mafia business never interested me, especially now when I saw all of its imperfections. I hated it. I hated how it tore my life apart. And above all else, I hated where this was going.

"You remember when I told you about the two men following you around, the Conti men?" At my reluctant nod, Lucian continued. "The Conti Family is still a powerful empire, Afton. They are not just an Italian family. They originate in England. Benny Conti was a Don, but it was Norah that held the true power. Her father named her his heir to a powerful organization. When she married Benny Conti, she combined their resources."

"My grandmother was the hand behind it all?" I asked darkly. "Do you have any idea how stupid that sounds, Lucian?"

"Stupid? No. Farfetched? Yes." Lucian reached over and caressed my inner thigh, grabbing it possessively as I tried to move away. "I have evidence that your… that Norah was the brains behind everything." He reached into his jacket and plopped down a manila folder. A few pictures spewed out. "After Norah's and Benny's deaths, Gabriele traced the resources back to Italy or back to other Conti members. He didn't even think, for one moment, that everything would be moving in Norah's direction. The Conti Family is still alive, Afton, and its currently being headed by Norah's sister, Ellen Reed."

Unnerved, I reached forward and took the photograph off the bed. It was of Lucian and me outside in the park that day I had thrown up. Countless, upon countless of photographs were taken of us, of me in specific. I flipped open the manila folder, rustling through the photographs, my heart in my throat. They'd been watching me. Lucian had been right. People had been watching me. And I hadn't even noticed.

"I don't understand," I muttered. Lucian's words were beginning to weigh me down with the implications of it all. "Why would they watch me like this? Do my parents know? I—do they think I'm a threat?"

Lucian reached over me and brushed the photographs off the top, revealing a ledger-like document. "They've been watching you since you were eighteen-years-old, but were hesitant to approach you after finding out how close you were to me. You, Afton, are the heir to the Conti Family."

"Me?" I asked in disbelief. To back up Lucian's words, all the companies in the document were listed in my name. "I still don't understand."

A hand claimed my back and began rubbing soothing circles. "Ellen Reed came to speak to Gabriele and I. She confirmed all this. While the Conti and Romano Family are not currently allied, Gabriele wants to get to you before Ellen does. He wants to use you, manipulate you to get a piece of your inheritance. Right now, you can't trust your family either. Your father was told this recently—"

"My father," I repeated numbly, remembering how lenient he had been since I came back from school in California. "He just found out I inherited all… all of this?" I pushed the documents away in disgust, feeling something lodge in my throat. I felt like I was going to be sick. "My own father knew and didn't tell me. He—he was going to use me too, just like Gabriele wants to," I whispered hoarsely.

"Afton." Lucian pressed his face into my neck and inhaled greedily, kissing my throat. "You don't know that for sure. He could have withheld the information for a good reason. However, I do want you to proceed with caution. It's rumored he's working with the Gallo Family. Their main goal is to take down the Romanos and they'll combine resources if that's what it takes them to succeed."

"I don't understand," I said again. I grabbed my head and closed my eyes. "Everything is so… fucked up. I want to leave right now, Lucian."

My own family had sided with the enemies. From what I've heard about the Gallo Family, they weren't exactly people to rely on or to trust. To think that my father was aligning with them and planning to manipulate mewas sickening. I couldn't even imagine what he would have done if he got his hands on me first. Thank God Lucian was here, explaining this to me. Hell, the whole inheritance was mind-blowing as it was. Marcello declaring war on the Romanos was just as bad. And here I thought he'd just been speaking with the detective, Paul Delve.

"We can't," Lucian said. "We can't leave and have all this chasing after us, Afton."

"Why would the Gallo Family align with Marcello?" I asked numbly. "Just because they both want the Romano Family taken down doesn't mean they'd benefit."

"They're unstable," he agreed. "We have reason to believe Marcello is using your inheritance as bait. I don't know exactly how he had planned to do it, but I'm sure he thought you'd be cooperative. Marcello did not inherit anything from Norah. He's penniless and when the Gallo Family finds out he's bluffing, they'll most likely discard him and the people he's brought over to his side."

My mom, Nick… And what about Tony?

"This is really messed up," I declared, staring at the documents in front of me. "Let me get this straight. My father is working with the Gallo Family to bring down the Romanos and they think I'll cooperate and help them by using this inheritance—inheritance I don't even want. And Gabriele wants to use me too, probably to eliminate the Gallo Family and my father. I'm like a fucking rope used for tug-of-war." I tapped the manila folder. "What is Ellen Reed doing in all this?"

Lucian watched me closely, probably looking for signs of any looming breakdowns. "We don't know. For right now, she's just an observer. We don't know how many men she's brought to the United States, but we do know that she's no friend to Marcello Conti or Gabriele Romano."

"What else? Is there anything else I should know about?" Any casualties? Any threats? Life using the library hand soap to wash my armpits seemed so much preferable than this. I lived in a world full of power-hungry men who used weapons and manipulation to get what they wanted. I couldn't believe my own father was creating this hell.

As I reached for the manila folder, Lucian beat me to it and grabbed hold of it. "That's all you need to know right now," he replied in a clipped tone.

"Luciano," I hissed angrily.

"Lucian," he corrected. "You always call me Lucian."

"When you're hiding things from me, I can call you whatever I want." I couldn't believe that there would be more to hide. If it was on this caliber, I didn't know how well I could take it.

He kept the folder on his lap and stared me down. "I told you all this because I knew you could handle it and because I wanted to tell you before anyone else gets a chance to." With a tapered finger, he tapped the folder without looking away from me. "This other stuff, you can't handle right now."

That took me by surprise. A part of me wanted to agree with him, especially when he appeared so grim. If it was true, that I wouldn't be able to handle it, then I didn't know if I wanted to hear it. However, the larger part of me wanted to know now and get it over with. Why not throw me under the bus when I was already half under? "Does my father know?" I asked him seriously. He appeared bemused at my question. "Does my father know what you aren't telling me?"

The Italian Adonis was impassive and cold. "Marcello knows."

A chill went down my spine. "Then I'd like to know." Lucian didn't look as if he would tell me. "Lucian," I started, "please tell me. You're the only one I can trust right now to tell me everything." I kept eye contact with him, holding his stare to let him know I was ready.

"I really have no idea what to do in this situation," Lucian admitted darkly. "I understand that I can't keep things from you, but this is something I also think you don't need to know now. It's something your parents should have explained to you, not me."

"Lucian," I exclaimed with impatience. "You're really messing with my head right now."

He pressed his lips together and handed me the folder. As I made a move to take it, he jerked it back away. "This won't change anything."

Without waiting for any more invitation, I grabbed the folder from him and flipped past the ledgers and to the last document in the folder. I squinted at the writing, taking a moment to fully comprehend what I was reading. I could complain as much as I wanted to about my life, but in the end, it was still a welcoming and familiar life that I hadn't realized how much I treasured. Staring at this revelation, I could feel the concrete foundations I built my life around crumble abruptly.

Marcello and Kara Conti weren't my real parents. I wasn't Italian and my own grandmother turned out to be my biological mother.

"Is this some kind of fucking joke?"

"Afton—"

"I just… this is just fucking disgusting…"

I flipped the medical records to the second page, spying the paper clipped photograph of the sperm donor. My biological father. The man had blond hair and a handsome face, a kind of old-fashioned charisma. For a moment, the true disturbance of the situation took a momentarily back seat as I stared at my biological father. I hated to admit it, but I was fascinated by him, by the story behind him, and everything that he had to offer. My own appearance mirrored his, so much so than it had Marcello's or Kara's. I hated this Marcus Collins, but I was ashamed to admit that I wanted to know him.

"Marcus Collins," Lucian whispered, as if reading my thoughts. "I researched him. He's currently fifty-eight years old and he just got out of prison for extortion. He was a high-profile member of the Conti Family during their rise. It was originally the Reed Family, but when Norah married Benny, they began changing it."

"What's worse?" I asked numbly. "A father as an ex-convict or a father that has a fucking rock for a brain?"

Lucian smiled sadly. "I would say they both don't deserve the title of 'father'."

"He's my half-brother. Marcello is my half-brother," I realized suddenly. "I feel fucking sick." I closed the file and leaned over at the waist, pressing my forehead on top my knees. "I just don't understand why. Why would Norah do this?" To name me heir to the Conti Family without really knowing how I would turn out was suspicious. Why would she name me as the sole heir and not any of her elder children?

Blood rushed from my face and I had a discerning realization. "She didn't conceive me just because she wanted another son," I whispered. "She needed a child for the sole purpose of inheriting and running the business. Didn't she?" I demanded sharply when I turned to Lucian. "That's why my father wasn't Benny Conti, but some fucking English bastard. Ellen Reed was speaking to you about all this. What was her reasoning? And don't fucking lie to me, Lucian. If your father gets to know the reason behind it, then I think I have a right just as well."

The underboss stood up from the mattress and began pacing. He ran an agitated hand through his hair and swung back around in the other direction. "This is why I didn't want to tell you," he began, his tone borderline angry. "The messenger always gets shot, doesn't he? I had no hand in this Afton, please stop taking your anger out on me."

I heaved a large sigh before a sob escaped my lips uninvitingly. Once the initial bout of emotion burst through, all bets were off. I began crying like a fucking girl and I hurriedly placed my face in my hands to hide my tears. I held my breath so I didn't make a noise, but my shoulders were shaking uncontrollably. This was happening more often than I would have liked, as the last time I cried, it was when Gabriele ran me off and threatened my family.

Lucian was there, always there. He grabbed me and held me close. He didn't need to say anything, his actions said it all.

He was always there and he always knew what I needed.

Collecting myself, I quickly blinked past the tears and forced away the hurt. It hurt to know that my identity was a lie, and if I was right, it hurt that I was conceived for the sole purpose of running a criminal empire. That stuff didn't happen. It was a huge shock to take in. But above all else, the hardest thing that I found difficult to handle was that my parents hadn't told me. They'd lied to me. Maybe they had their own reasons for keeping it to themselves, seeing as Norah was killed, gone, but I had deserved the truth.

"It was hard hearing it from her," Lucian murmured quietly into my hair. "But I knew the hardest part would be to look at you… and tell you that you were conceived for a selfish and warped purpose. You deserve so much more than this, Afton." He pulled away and wiped away the wetness on my cheeks with his thumbs. He smiled in the face of my stubborn, closed-off expression. "It's ok to show emotion."

I looked down. "I'm just tired," I responded monotonously. "I mean, how is someone supposed to act when they learn their parents aren't their real parents? How are you supposed to act when you learn you were conceived for the purpose of running a company?"

Lucian grinned tightly. "There isn't a specific way to act, especially in this case." He stroked the back of my neck. "If it makes you feel better, I don't see you any different than before and you shouldn't either. Your parents raised you as their son. Who said they couldn't be your true parents? This life that you're living now will always be a life you've chosen. Nothing should change with this revelation."

He was right. Nothing had to change. Maybe I had freaked out about what would happen now that I found out my parents weren't whom I thought they were. I almost expected that things would need to change, but they didn't. I was still the same person and I was still faced with the same decisions and choices. Somehow, that reassured me greatly.

"We're still leaving together, right?" I glanced at the manila folder. "Even after finding out about this… I still want to be with you… away from it all."

"Where do you think I would go?" He angled my head up and grinned wolfishly. "You're stuck with me, now more than ever. I'm never letting you go." He pressed his lips against mine, taking special care of biting my lower lip and sucking on it possessively.

The action sent a thrill down my spine, giving me more life than I'd experienced in a while. When he pulled back, he looked satisfied but also reluctant. "You have to go," I guessed darkly. "Thank you for coming. I know it was dangerous, and I think you should have stayed away, but it was good to hear it from you." I clutched at his hands, finding it difficult to let go. "Please be careful."

Lucian nodded sharply. "I hope to bring you back soon. With the current mood around the manor, I don't want Gabriele getting a hold on you yet, but it will be safer if you're with me." His dark eyes looked at the hotel door. "I don't want you going anywhere. If Catherine wants you to go somewhere, make sure you talk to me first. Don't open the door for anyone and don't answer the phone. Keep the blinds shut. I have a few men around the hotel just in case."

I was torn between feeling amusement for his parental tone and anxious with how worried he sounded. I nodded solemnly, watching as he stood up and put on his baseball cap. He looked like a completely different person without his pressed and tailored suits. Somehow, I found him extremely handsome… sexy this way.

"Here," I murmured, pushing the file across the bed and toward him. "You can take it."

I didn't want to look at it anymore. I knew I would stare at it for hours, dwelling with the details. Not only did it hurt to know my parents kept this from me, but it hurt to know that my grandmother, whom I'd always refer to her as, had lived the lie so well. She'd been my confidant, my dotting grandmother. To know what she was like underneath that façade really got to me, really troubled me.

It would take a while to come to terms with that. I don't think I'd ever see her as anything but the woman I grew up with. Why should I? I didn't want to tarnish her memory or the memories I had with her. Somehow, they would seem true if I came to accept this.

Without a word, Lucian took the folder and placed it inside his leather jacket. He stared down at me and I stared back. "Are you sure you're alright?" He didn't want to leave, I could see it in his posture, in his expression. His eyes were so open to me now that I knew how to read him. "If it makes you feel better, I think I was also conceived for the sole reason of running my father's business."

I cracked a grin before it turned into a full-blown smile. "You're ridiculous," I teased. "But it's so true. At least you weren't conceived in a Petri dish."

He inclined his head in agreement. "Although, the way I was conceived isn't an image I'd like to think about either."

"Touché," I appraised happily, not wanting to imagine Gabriele in bed with anyone.

Lucian stood there for a moment longer before bending down and pressing his lips against my ear. "I love you," he declared fiercely. "And I promise you that I will take your mind off all this the next time we're together. The only thing on your mind will be finding out how to relax enough to let me in."

My lips turned down in confusion, as I didn't understand his leering comment. When he pulled back, lust in his eyes, did I finally put the two and two together. Blood raced to my cheeks and I offered a nervous laugh. Through the nervousness, an exciting thrill made itself known. Being with Lucian sexually was so intimidatingly arousing, that I found it hard not to look forward to it.

I watched him open the door and exit. "I love you too," I confessed just before the door shut.

Frowning, I shuffled further on the bed, feeling my amusement shrivel and turn dark. There was a hallowed emptiness in my chest as I brought up my legs and stared at the far wall. I was worried sick over Lucian. I was worried for Tony… and for my family, no matter how much they'd betrayed me. Nick, especially, was on my mind. Surely, he hadn't known. He was just as much a pawn in this as I was; only, he was forced to go wherever Marcello tugged him.

My conversation with Lucian was heaven-sent, but there were things we hadn't talked about, or more accurately, avoided. It slipped my mind to ask him how he'd been able to leave the manor and I also forgot to ask why the mood around his house was so negative.

Above all else, the most important thing we hadn't addressed was a plan. Neither Lucian nor I said anything about how we were going to take care of everything. I realized that it wouldn't be that easy and I dreaded the messy consequences. Not only did we have Marcello, the Gallo Family, and Gabriele to shake off, but now we had this ridiculous conflict with Ellen Reed.

I didn't want anything I inherited from Norah and Lucian didn't want to stay with the Mafia. We were on the same page about that, thankfully. We just needed to find a way to escape everyone's expectations of us.

I glanced at the door, knowing Catherine would be coming in shortly. In the meantime, I had to begin brainstorming. Lucian was the most streets smart out of the two of us, knowing a lot more about the Mafia than I could ever hope to. However, I was also intelligent—at least books smart. I wanted to contribute some way to this mess. I had to come up with something that would get everyone off our tails without the use of much violence.

Somehow, that task seemed ominous and impossible.